When Devendra Jhajharia first decided, at age 13, that he would become a javelin thrower, he didn't do it because he felt he would become one of India's greatest athletes. His left arm amputated after it touched an electric wire, he was prey to bullying in his hometown of Churu, Rajasthan.
"The children would make fun of me and call me weak. And I just wanted to prove I was strong. I picked up the javelin to show I was not kamzor (weak)" he says from Tokyo, where on Monday morning he won a silver medal in the men's f46 category javelin throw event at the Paralympics.
Jhajharia has proved, over the past two decades, that is anything but 'kamzor'. His medal in Tokyo was his third at the Paralympics - starting with a gold in Athens in 2004 and another in Rio five years ago. He would probably have had more but for the fact that the F46 category - for athletes with arm deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired passive range of movement in arms - was not part of the Paralympic program in 2008 and 2012.
In a career full of highlights, what stands out is how Jhajharia seems to be defying age. Indeed his gold-winning throw at the 2004 Games - when he was 23 - at 62.15m was a couple of meters short of his silver-winning effort of 64.30m in Toky, age 40. His effort on Monday was his personal best in Paralympic competitions.
"He's the only person I know who seems to be getting better with age," says Sunil Tanwar, who has been coaching Jhajharia since 2014. The two know each other for longer still. They were competitors once, back when Jhajharia competed against able-bodied athletes. "The Paralympics are well-known now but back when I started out I used to compete with everyone else," recalls Jhajharia.
"I first met Devendra at the inter-university championships in 2001. I won a medal and Devendra didn't but everyone had a huge amount of respect for him. There is a bond that all athletes share and at that time knowing he was a differently abled athlete who was giving an equal challenge to the regular athletes made him stand out," says Tanwar.
Jhajharia would go on to win a bronze medal at the 2003 Inter-university championships in Tatanagar - probably the only differently-abled athlete to have won a medal at a national championships in India. But something else about that competition stands out for Tanwar. "He had a best throw of 68.4m at that competition. And now nearly 20 years later he's still throwing nearly that much. I challenge you to find me another 40 year old who can throw this much. Ekdum lajawab thrower hai (He is an excellent thrower). If he didn't have his disability, who knows what he would have been throwing?"
What makes it more incredible is that Jhajharia's handicap is in his non-throwing arm - a significant fact for a javelin thrower. "That he doesn't have an arm makes it very difficult to balance while throwing. The arm is also what is needed to build up speed. Without it you can't do the sort of training exercises that a regular athlete will do. You can't do snatches, for example. There's no para training routine that you can follow for athletes with a disability. Devendra has been creating his own training book for the last 20 years," says Tanwar.
What Jhajharia lacked in precedent he made up for in iron will. "He is perhaps the most determined athlete I've come across," says Tanwar. "If he decides he want to do something, he will go ahead and accomplish it. He suffered a shoulder injury in 2018 and because of that he had no medals between the 2016 Paralympics and today in Tokyo but he kept training as hard as he could. Today when he has missed out on a gold, I will say it has to be some mistake in my coaching. He has done everything I could have asked and more."
Jhajharia's dedication to his training saw him leave home and spend a year with Tanwar in Gandhinagar, where the latter works as a coach. While staying away from his wife and two kids was hard enough, what was tougher was the fact that in the same period, his father - a man he considers his greatest supporter - died after a battle with cancer. "My father always supported me in everything I did as a sportsperson. He would be so excited in telling my achievements to his friends. When I found out he had late stage cancer and wanted to stay with him, he told me to return to Gandhinagar and continue my training. It was always his dream that I win a third Paralympic medal. A month later, I received the news that he had died," he recalls.
On Monday, Jhajharia would dedicate his medal to his father. ""I would not be here if it was not for my father's efforts. It was he who pushed me to train hard and win another medal. I am happy that today I have fulfilled his dream." Jhajharia said.
What are Jhajharia's dreams after his third Paralympic medal? "After winning my first gold medal, there were two Paralympics where my category was not included. At that time I felt I should quit since I didn't have a target in front of me. At that time, my wife pushed me to stay in the game. But now there is a target. I will continue as long as I can," he says.
And while he's getting older, he's only getting better. "The facilities that I have today, the knowledge I have today is far better than anything I had as a younger man. The support I'm getting is something else. Back in 2004 when I won my first gold medal, I had to pay for my own travel. My father had to take a loan for that. This time, I was much better prepared. I'm of course a lot older but I'm as enthusiastic as ever," he says.
Jhajharia's contribution to the sport is perhaps even more significant when you think of those who he's inspired. "I coach many able-bodied athletes -- including (former national record holder) Rajinder Singh. And so many athletes both regular and para athletes are motivated by Devendra. They think if he can achieve so much, why can't they?" says Tanwar.
When Jhajharia looks back at his career, he sometimes marvels at what he achieved. "I've seen Paralympic sports go from nothing to a something which gets so much support. When I think how children would bully me, it used to hurt a lot but now I think because of it I was pushed to a sport I love. Everything I have now is because of it," he says.